Standing Athwart Religion

If you have gone to look at the post and comment thread about Christianity over at Dennis Mangan’s, you will have seen that Dennis, an unbeliever who considers himself a conservative, must confront the assertion put to him by Lawrence Auster: that it is simply not consistent to be both a conservative defender of Western civilization and to disdain the Christian religion.

It would be easy enough, and correct, simply to say it all just depends on how one defines “conservative”, but that is uninteresting, and ignores a legitimate charge. If, as is surely the case, Western culture owes many of its essential qualities to its Christian heritage, then if one wants to repudiate Christianity, one must give some account of exactly what it is, then, that one expects to conserve. If our culture has Christian bones, argue the believers, you can hardly fillet it and expect it to stand.

It is late, and so in this post I can only make a few remarks, and open the floor for discussion. What are the core “Christian” principles that are assumed here? Democracy? The spirit of rational inquiry? These come to us not from Jerusalem, but Athens, no? Political freedom? Freedom of religion? Are these characteristically Christian ideas? It would be hard, I think, to argue that they are. A binding sense of community? All religions have that; it is, as I have argued often, what religions are for.

Without question our cultural artifacts are steeped in Christianity. It has catalyzed, and been the subject of, many of our greatest works of music, art, sculpture, literature, and architecture. But we must also keep in mind that the artists who created these cultural monuments had to work at the behest of their patrons — often the Church itself — and within the ambient cultural milieu. Do we imagine that Bach, or Michelangelo, or Bernini, or Wren, would have been millers, or dockworkers, were it not for Christianity?

And has the Christian influence on the West been an unalloyed blessing? Would we have had the Dark Ages without it? The Church has hardly — to put it mildly — been a spur to free scientific inquiry, and to this day it is in the name of grotesquely absurd Christian beliefs about the natural world that we must contend with such benighted and retrograde influences as young-Earth creationism and opposition to the teaching of evolution. The influence of Christianity at the level of the great mass of people in the West often takes the form of the most mind-stunting fundamentalist literalism, and, as we have seen in the comment thread to Dennis’s post, even Christianity’s ablest and most sophisticated proponents — people of otherwise enormously impressive intellect — can be led, by the bridle of their religion, to believe such things as “Darwinism is false”.

But let us say that the many virtues that the conservative rightly values about our culture — democracy, personal liberty, the rule of law, a free press, an open economy, and the great canon of Western art — would not have arisen without Christianity, that the Church was what guided and nurtured us in our growth from savagery to civilization. Does that mean we still need it now, and for the future? Might it not be seen as something that guided and steadied us in our childhood — a firm and fatherly influence that shielded us from the raw truth of the world by giving us comforting answers when we needed them, but which we must eventually outgrow? Is it time to take off the training wheels?

I think it is. But religions aren’t designed that way: they are also exquisitely engineered to protect themselves, with, as we have seen, a bristling armamentarium of cognitive and cultural defenses — and they will not, I am afraid, go quietly.

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12 Comments

  1. greg says

    I can think of multiple angles by which you might address this issue, but let me offer just this one:

    At risk of raising the semantic argument you pay homage to in your post, I assert that conservatism does not mean “resist all change”. Change, as we know, is inevitable and continuous, in all walks of life. So what distinguishes conservatism from other social philosophies is not its belief, or lack thereof, in change, but the heuristics by which it directs change for the cause of a healthy society.

    So there’s nothing inconsistent about being conservative and abandoning deep, long-held traditions of one’s culture. The only requirement is that a very high standard of proof must be met before deciding to pull the trigger, i.e. “assume this tradition is important until proven otherwise” (as opposed to the inverse).

    Regarding this:

    Western culture owes many of its essential qualities to its Christian heritage, then if one wants to repudiate Christianity, one must give some account of exactly what it is, then, that one expects to conserve. If our culture has Christian bones, argue the believers, you can hardly fillet it and expect it to stand.

    I don’t find this compelling. We can clearly identify core values of our culture and understand them outside an overtly religious context. Even if religion was a core part of their formation we’re fully capable of understanding and valuing, say, democracy, without having to invoke the name of Christ (although admittedly once we take out Christianity as a value system we need to substitute another value system that a quorum can agree on, and that’s tricky). I just don’t find it plausible that removing religion as an explicit guidance mechanism leads to the complete downfall of society, even if we don’t understand the intricacies and dependencies involved.

    Furthermore, I’d like to highlight the fact that, as is the nature of change, Western society, Western values, and Christianity have all morphed and changed and shifted their relationships amongst each other as time has marched on. The Christianity of today is not the Christianity of, say, pre-Rennaisance Europe. Fundamentalism, for example, which we think of as a particularly atrocious form of religion, is a decidedly modern, 20th century, phenomenon that just didn’t exist in pre-20th century culture. So if one argues that we must preserve the Christian elements of our culture for its survival, one also has to clarify which forms of Christianity we’re talking about (and which ones we’re not, and what differentiates them).

    Posted December 24, 2008 at 7:32 pm | Permalink
  2. greg says

    And merry Christmas to you too! May you greatly enjoy this fine Christian tradition that nurtures our culture and makes us what we are.

    Posted December 24, 2008 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Welcome aboard, Greg, and thanks for debuting with such an excellent comment. Indeed I can find nothing, really, in what you have said that I’m inclined to disagree with.

    The conservative response to your standard-of-proof suggestion would likely be that the sort of proof we want will simply not be forthcoming, as we can never know what the deleterious effects of social change are going to be in advance. I would counter that societies cannot help but evolve in response to a rapidly changing world, and that the conservative attitude ought to be exactly what you suggest: serious, even obstinate wariness about change, and defense of essential principles, but not dogmatic rigidity.

    In particular I second your remark that “We can clearly identify core values of our culture and understand them outside an overtly religious context”. This is of course what we irreligious sorts have been doing all along; “proof of concept”, I think.

    Posted December 24, 2008 at 11:44 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Looking at my second paragraph above, I do think it worth pointing out that despite the issues raised above a case can be made that “defense of essential principles” ought to include, if one is going to call oneself a conservative, defense of Christianity. This is the case that Lawrence Auster has been making over at Dennis’s place, and is making again in this thread.

    I wonder how important it really is, after all, to be able to call oneself a “conservative” or a “liberal”, or anything else; it certainly doesn’t matter much to me. There is much that I value in Western culture, and see as worth preserving, but as far as I am concerned that list does not include belief in the collective fantasies of Christianity, or any other religion.

    The Christian conservative, such as Mr. Auster, will presumably see this as rather an ungrateful attitude: while on the one hand enjoying the benefits of a Christian heritage, I disdain the root from which they sprang. But, leaving aside the question of just how “Christian” the worthwhile qualities of our culture actually are, the fact is that I simply do not believe that the central claims of Christianity are true, and would like to think that a decent Western civilization can be had without needing religion at its core.

    Posted December 25, 2008 at 12:24 am | Permalink
  5. greg says

    Thank you for the warm welcome!

    I’m fully with you on the wariness of semantic arguments. All of our “isms” are really just the concentrated essences of our various intellectual tendencies. They’re useful for cataloging and articulation, but they simply don’t map onto practical reality in a pure, non-compromising way. So there’s no point worrying how “purely” they’re being followed. This is precisely the trap many religious extremists fall into.

    Where I think you and I differ is that you see Christianity’s falsehood as grounds for general dismissal. I not only see nothing fundamentally bad about false beliefs, but I think false beliefs *are* one of those core components that society cannot do without (I’m largely influenced by Ernest Becker in this regard). But I don’t believe such belief systems must be overtly religious, so my perspective does not imply an endorsement of religion as we know it.

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 2:24 am | Permalink
  6. greg says

    Also, I would hope Mr. Auster wouldn’t put things in the way you hypothesize in your second comment. You’ve already made the case for the legitimacy of abandoning traditions when a burden of proof is met. As long as that principle is laid out there, you have no obligation to stay loyal to a tradition just because it served you well in the past. Traditions have no egos and cannot be hurt, so we shouldn’t think of them as downtrodden grandparents that we feel bad for when we leave them. Whatever calculus we use to make our decisions, if that calculus tells us to move on we should do so decisively and guiltlessly.

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 2:43 am | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Dennis Mangan has linked to this post back at his place, which has in turn prompted a remarkable comment from one of his readers: an obscene and utterly uncomprehending rant that misses the point so nimbly, and is so spectacularly unfettered by the constraints of reason, that I wonder if it mightn’t be some sort of prank, intended to poke fun at the pious. Have a look here.

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Greg,

    The question of whether religious belief is so valuable to society that it should be encouraged even if the content of the beliefs is false is obviously an important one. I will admit that I find this notion very depressing indeed, and have, rather, enough confidence in our species to imagine that we ought to be able to lead civilized lives without the need to deceive ourselves in this way. The fact that many people already do is, I think, reason to be hopeful, if not optimistic.

    Whether human communities that have weaned themselves from religion are stout-hearted enough to prevail against those that haven’t, though, is another matter (particularly when those communities adopt suicidal policies of uncritical tolerance and multicultural relativism). A mind hijacked by religious memes to the point of homicidal (or even suicidal) fanaticism is a formidable opponent.

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  9. dempsey says

    These virtues that Mr. Pollack speaks of did not just “arise” out of thin air. They were conceived from and built on our Judeo-Christian foundation, far from being simply “training wheels”, as he would have us believe.

    How arrogant is the atheist standing on the mountain erected by Christianity who scorns that mountain holding him up. He throws pebbles at the Christian God while continuing to live off His inheritance. Talk about suicidal fanaticism!

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Simmer down, dempsey. Just what virtues do you have in mind? None of the ones I mentioned — democracy, personal liberty, a free press, etc. — are uniquely, or even identifiably, Christian.

    And I am afraid it is you who exhibits the arrogance here, if you expect us to believe that Christianity holds some sort of patent on moral virtue. Do you honestly imagine that it never occurred to people to treat one another with kindness until the Christian era? Or that Shintos or Jainists are incapable of loving one another?

    The “mountain” you speak of is far more ancient than this or that religion, and stands beneath them all. Religions simply codify and formalize pre-existing moral intuitions.

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 6:12 pm | Permalink
  11. dempsey says

    Just how is it that these “moral intuitions” exist in the first place, if not derived from transcendent truths?

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    We have them, in my view, because they are adaptive. Humans are social creatures, and our evolved moral architecture helps human groups to thrive.

    I do not expect you to accept this, of course — but if you survey the growing body of literature on this topic, you will find that a coherent and persuasive scientific consensus supports this view, which has also the advantage of requiring no appeal to the supernatural.

    Posted December 26, 2008 at 9:36 pm | Permalink